Welcome to my first blog post of the year.
I find it hard to write about Ukraine and what’s happening at the moment. Somebody at work said to me the other day ‘The war’s stopped in Ukraine now hasn’t it?’ I replied ‘What makes you say that?’ and he said ‘Well you never hear anything about it on the news anymore’. And that’s the problem isn’t it? The western media refuse to cover the conflict for reasons only known to them.
There are a very small number of freelance journalists and photographers who have travelled out to the conflict zones and are reporting form there, but obviously they are few and far between and restricted financially. And with no financial backing, their time in these areas is limited.
I recently heard about two Dutch journalists Stefan Beck and Michel Spekkers who travelled to Donbass to do just this and had their equipment seized when they arrived back at Schiphol Airport. You can read about the confiscation of their material Here. Okay, the seizure was linked to material relating the the MH17 flight disaster, but the fact that ‘all’ their material was seized (including street interviews with people not related to MH17) left a big question mark as to the motive of such actions.
Transparency is the key here. Journalists and photographers should be free to go unhindered when returning back to their native countries. Authorities attempting to take some form of control over what footage can or can’t be seen is a big no no. It only leads to numerous accusations and defeats the object of obtaining such material in the first place.
Without stating the obvious, there are lessons to be learned here of course. Prepare for the worst. Make back ups of your footage and if you suspect that you might be getting ‘lifted’ on your return, find another way to get your equipment back into the country. I already know of many journalists who deactivate their finger print recognition on their phone when going through customs for fear of being forced to unlock their phone and its contents. Real world problems eh?
Poverty Porn. I believe that seems to be the new terminology for programmes gracing our televisions these days. From programmes about benefit cheats and the unemployed to those who have fallen into debt, they’re all there.
In many countries of the former Soviet Union though, it’s on a different level altogether. Children abandoned at a very young age are left to fend for themselves. Drawn into substance abuse, prostitution, crime and gangs.
Hanna Polak is a Polish film director, cinematographer and producer. She took the streets of Moscow and produced the film below ‘Children Of Leningradsky’ in 2005. It documents the lives of those children and the hardships they face on a day to day basis.
Although produced in 2005, not much has changed in Moscow or many other countries of the former Soviet Union.
As the weather has now started to turn, winter tours in Ukraine can be tough so I’m in no immediate rush to get back out there.
It’s time like this I turn to my box of 6×6 images. Taken when I was studying for my degree at university here in Coventry, there are hundreds. But one image that always jumps out at me is the one below of Natasha.
This is one of the last that I took of Natasha and I remember the day well. I’d agreed to take pictures of her, and in typical Ukrainian fashion it consisted of holding flowers, hugging trees or statues and posing near monuments.
These were the shots she wanted and are typical of the images which grace the profiles of many a pretty ‘devushka’ on VK and similar social media platforms. On any given day, you’ll see young ladies all over Ukraine (and many other former Soviet countries) doing exactly the same.
Later in the day, I managed to convince Natasha to take me to where she lived. Her home environment. We took a bus ride to a small soviet apartment block on the outskirts of Kiev which she shared with her friends. It was fairly cramped by western standards but considered ‘normalna’ for many here.
Cramped but comfortable, religious icons shared the shelves with perfume and nail polish. We sat in the kitchen, drank lemon tea, chatted about life in Ukraine and what the future might hold.
She always looked immaculate though and one would never have placed her in such humble surroundings. She’d have looked more at home stepping into a Bentley down on Khreschatyk with an array of designer shopping bags.
The strange thing is, when I started documenting those who joined marriage agencies in Ukraine I thought it was all about ‘love’ and the search for it. But after a showing people a selection of my images it’s not about that at all. Or that’s not how it came across to people anyway.
I think I was getting ready to present my images for an exhibition at the The Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham when somebody said ‘When I look at these pictures Dean, I don’t feel they are about love, but more about loneliness’. And after closer analysis, I realised that’s exactly what they were about.
Two weeks ago I returned back to the UK after travelling over to eastern Europe on my motorbike. It’s something I’d wanted to do for a long time. A very long time in fact. I’d put it off last year, and the year before that, but this year I was determined it was going to happen.
I won’t lie. The going was tough at times. One day I covered just under 600 miles. And it was one extreme or the other. Long, never ending roads in western Europe or poor, almost impassable roads in eastern Europe.
Although Bulgaria and Romania were fantastic countries, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for me was always going to be Ukraine. Gaining access was not so simple though. Travelling into Ukraine from Romania was a struggle as I was selected for an ‘interview’ by border guards. The process was very similar to what one might expect from people in authority stuck in what you could describe as ‘soviet’ ways. I can’t say that it was totally unexpected , but just a long drawn out inconvenience. Once everything was ‘normalna’ I was allowed to enter.
It’s hard to describe how it felt when I had my first beer that evening in Ukraine. Washed down with a bowl of borscht and chorniy xleb (black bread), followed by salad, meat and potatoes. It was as near to heaven as I could get.
After spending one night in the Carpathian mountains it was then onto Kalush. There were poor roads (as expected) but fantastic people all along the way. Whenever I stopped for petrol people were very curious about the bike with many taking ‘selfies’, no doubt for their VK or Facebook page.
The following morning I headed out of Ukraine and into Poland making my way home. It was a short stopover in Ukraine, but worthwhile none the less. As I was leaving through the west of Ukraine, the large ATO billboards at the roadside were a constant reminder of the ongoing war in the east of the country.
Hopefully I’ll return next year and spend more time there.
As you may be aware, my work has recently been exhibited in Madrid as part of the 5 Plus 5 exhibition and will be coming to Birmingham here in the UK in March. It features four of my images from my ongoing projects in Ukraine.
I couldn’t make the opening night in Madrid but below is a short video.
I am pleased to report that I have had four images selected to be shown in the 5 Plus 5 exhibitions which are to be held in both Madrid and Birmingham. Although I won’t be available to attend the exhibition opening in Madrid, I will be at the launch in Birmingham which opens in Spring 2015.
More details can be found Here.
At the weekend I managed to get to the HUBBUK 2014 event. For those not in the know, the aim of HUBB is to inspire, inform and connect overland adventure travellers.
HUBB laid on a first class event with a huge presentation schedule, so camping out for the weekend was a great opportunity to test any equipment recently purchased and to mingle with like minded folk. There were many presentations taking place, but for me it had to be the one by Austin Vince that stood out amongst all others. He’s like a cross between the manager from the Phone Shop and Mr Gilbert from The Inbetweeners. He gives no ordinary talk. It’s like watching proper dry stand up comedy. Austin certainly knows how to keep an audience engaged and more importantly, transmit information in a language they understand.
Of course, my main reason for attending was to draw inspiration for my trip to Ukraine by motorcycle next year. Many there are seasoned travellers and this was an ideal opportunity to put the feelers out. I didn’t have to feel for long. Whilst attending a presentation I got talking to Rod Shaw. Rod seemed fascinated in my trip to Ukraine next year so hopefully we may be able to put some plans together between us.
So whilst basking in the sun with a beer in hand, I came across the legendary Ted Simon of Jupiter’s Travels fame. Ted’s wife is Ukrainian (coincidentally!) and his bike is now on display at the Coventry Transport Museum.